A very international British education

The British curriculum is a popular choice within international schools across the globe. We investigate the rise in British education overseas and find out what makes it so sought-after.

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As the international schools market goes from strength to strength, evidence suggests that a British curriculum is likely to increase its dominance in international schools across the globe, and that overseas families will continue to seek places at independent schools in the UK.According to the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) 2017 Census, pupil numbers at independent schools in the UK have exceeded their pre-recession high, and now stand at their highest level since records began in 1974.Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the ISC, puts this down to consistently high standards and a “tremendous record” of academic achievement, but also to stimulating opportunities for pupils outside the classroom and a professional approach to pastoral care.“It is no surprise that British independent schools are seen as amongst the best in the world,” says Mr Lenon.The ISC Census shows that many families relocating to the UK would agree. There are currently over 23,000 non-British pupils whose parents live in the UK. In addition, there are over 27,000 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas.The government is not only keen to increase those numbers, but also recognises the diversity international students in the UK bring to the education sector, helping to provide an international dimension which, it believes, benefits all students.In its report International Education Strategy: Global Growth and Prosperity, the government went some way to acknowledging the importance of an international element to British education, including welcoming overseas students into schools and higher-education institutions in Britain.“Engagement in international education enhances the reputation of UK institutions,” says the report. “The experience of students in UK education helps to create good relations that will enable successful engagement with the next generation of global leaders. International education also helps to strengthen overseas business, research, social and cultural links.”Tim Jones, deputy head (academic) of Sevenoaks School, in Kent, a coeducational day and boarding school for pupils aged 11–18, agrees, and believes that there are huge benefits to learning alongside students from other countries and cultures. Students of over 50 nationalities currently study at the school.“Many of the world’s problems stem from miscommunication, and solutions tend to come from familiarity and shared ground,” says Mr Jones. “It is important to us that everyone can celebrate their cultural identity and their languages. In this way, we construe international-mindedness as a panacea against closed-minded nationalism.”John Aguilar, principal of Padworth College, a boarding school in Berkshire that prides itself on the international nature of its students, highlights the importance of instilling a culture of acceptance in children whilst they are still young. “In order to spread the value of internationalism we need to stress its value whilst pupils are still in education,” he explains. “Unfortunately, by adulthood, views tend to become relatively unshakable. It’s therefore important to offer pupils an open view and understanding of the different nationalities and cultures around them as well as further afield while their minds are still open and keen.” 

Exporting UK education

But it is the export of a British education that has seen the biggest growth over the past few years. While there are only 59 overseas campuses operated by ISC schools, these campuses are just a small part of the growing number of British schools overseas. ISC Research, which researches and analyses data from the international schools sector, estimates that there are more than 4,100 British oriented schools around the world, representing around half of all English-medium international schools worldwide.UK education exports currently generate more than £20 billion for the UK economy each year and the growing market is only set to continue in its upward trend.Overseas campuses of some of the best-known British independent schools are already positioned in global relocation hotspots, such as Haileybury Astana, in Kazakhstan. Dulwich College has had a school in Shanghai since 2003, and Harrow and Wellington also have outposts in China. Malvern College are to open their fifth international campus – this time in Hong Kong – in September 2018.The perceived rigour of a UK-style education, alongside the global recognition of its qualifications, appears to be fuelling this growing demand around the world. According to a British Council research report, Global Expansion of UK Boarding Schools: A Study of Branch Campuses, UK boarding schools are rapidly expanding across the world, with growth centred on East Asia and the Middle East.And there are no signs of this trend reversing, as strong economic growth in regions such as Asia is creating a growing middle class eager to give their children a quality education.“The priority given to education rises alongside the growth of the global middle class,” said Anna Esaki-Smith, author of the report. “Thus, the expansion of UK boarding schools overseas is a reflection of not only that correlation, but the belief that a UK-style education provides a quality academic experience.”Mark Herbert, head of schools programmes at the British Council, said, “The UK has long held a reputation for world-class education, and this emerging opportunity for growth overseas is exciting.”With the uncertainty of Brexit, UK Universities are operating in an increasingly competitive global marketplace but the attraction of a British education remains strong. For international students, being a part of the UK school system provides an important route into Higher Education should they choose to apply to the UK or elsewhere. 

International qualifications

The Council of British International Schools (COBIS) has grown to 290 member and accredited member schools in 80 countries since its foundation over 30 years ago.Data from the latest COBIS annual survey reveals that these schools educate around 140,000 pupils and employ more than 30,000 teachers and support staff. The curriculum most commonly taught by responding COBIS schools worldwide is the UK curriculum, at 89 per cent.The examinations most commonly taken in the previous academic year were International GCSE (67 per cent of schools), A Level (43 per cent of schools) and AS Level (36 per cent of schools).The International GCSE (IGCSE) is a globally recognised qualification. Though it is at the same level as the GCSE, it is intended to have a broader approach to learning, and greater international transferability, than traditional UK-based qualifications.According to the University of Cambridge Assessment International Examinations (CIE) examining board, the main awarding body of the IGCSE to UK schools, the IGCSE has become well established on the international education scene and is taught in more than 2,600 schools worldwide.Michael O’Sullivan, chief executive of the CIE, believes that the IGCSE helps students to gain a global perspective on their learning. “The desire to learn by looking beyond our own society is more evident than ever,” he says, “with more than a million pupils taking Cambridge examinations around the world. These students want to maximise their potential by having an education with international characteristics. This allows them to gain globally recognised qualifications, and to look beyond their own country in their education.“For pupils and their parents, education is the key to achieving personal goals, such as improved employment and higher-education prospects. Increasingly, those goals have a global perspective, and pupils want access to the world’s leading universities wherever they are. They see an international education as a means to achieve this.”

Benefiting the UK economy

Access to international higher education is becoming increasingly important for families across the globe, and many are looking to an education based on the UK curriculum to help their children acquire the qualifications necessary to gain entry into the top higher-education institutions.Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and former Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, believes that education is an important enabler of UK economic growth and one of the country’s most successful exports.“Education is global,” said Mr Clark. “In recognition of this, the government published its International Education Strategy, setting out the case and strategy for a step change in the way government supports the education sector to grow internationally.”Alongside the publication of the International Education Strategy, the government department UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) established an education unit to support UK education and training organisations to win business overseas, with the aim of helping the sector to secure £3 billion of new business by 2020 as part of its 2020 Export Drive.

Ensuring quality

The UK government operates a system of inspections for British schools overseas (BSOs), run by a number of approved providers. The scheme looks in detail at similar aspects of education and welfare to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) in England. These include the quality of the curriculum and teaching, the welfare of pupils, health and safety, and the suitability of school premises.By achieving UK-inspection-based approval, schools should be able to demonstrate that they provide a British education that has similar characteristics to an education in an independent school in the UK.Inspectorates are required to publish on their website the results of all inspections for the past three years, but all reports can also be found on the UK government website, gov.ukCOBIS offers an alternative external validation system for BSOs called the Patron’s Accreditation and Compliance, which launched in April 2017. The new process, which is designed and run by COBIS, is rooted in self-evaluation, with professional validation from trained peer-school improvement partners and peer accreditors.“The new COBIS Patron’s Accreditation system encompasses British values with sensitivity to local cultural context and has a strong emphasis on scrutinising the effectiveness of safeguarding practices,” says COBIS’s CEO, Colin Bell.With more people working overseas than ever before, the demand for high-quality British international schools has never been greater. And, with the backing of the UK government and the commitment from world-class UK independent schools to continue expanding into popular relocation destinations, globally mobile families are in a strong position to take advantage of a British international education, wherever in the world they choose to call home.This is a revised version of an article originally published in July 2015.
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